Another four Ming Pao columnists have left the space allocated for their articles empty to protest against the sudden and unpopular plan of replacing the chief editor of the Chinese-language broadsheet with a Singapore-based Malaysian.
The move in the Monday edition came as the editorial team of am730 ran a double-page spread that included a “letter to readers” saying the free newspaper, which is critical of the government, was facing a “difficult time” amid revelations that mainland-backed companies were withdrawing their advertising.
The changes at the two papers appear to be attempts to erode their editorial freedom, scholars and industry insiders say.
But the man at the centre of the Ming Pao row, outgoing chief editor Kevin Lau Chun-to, spoke up for the management, saying it would not intervene in the columnists’ freedom to express themselves although they had made use of the space set aside for them to criticise it.
“There have been quite a few columns recently criticising the company’s decision to replace its chief editor,” Lau wrote in the paper’s Newsroom Notes column on Monday. “While the management may feel wronged and unhappy, it still respects the agreement between the editorial and the columnists made over the years.”
At am730, the team published a slogan in English against a blue sky and a bunch of lights: “Though I am not strong, I will persist. In this difficult time, please stand by me.”
In the letter, written in Chinese, the team said the advertising claim by its founder Shih Wing-ching, who is also a property heavyweight, would not deter the paper from upholding an independent stance.
“The editorial staff … thank everyone’s support … We believe that the media should not cling to any political power or rely on business bigwigs,” the letter said.
It said it believed the ad withdrawals would only be temporary, and that “advertisers would cherish this newspaper, which shows independent thinking” in order to “sustain a local Hong Kong commercial environment”.
At Ming Pao, the blank columns did not carry as strong a message but the intentions of the columnists were by no means unclear, given the telling headlines.
“Taking away articles won’t stop us from caring. The blank space is evidence of the real us,” ran the headline for the column of Commercial Radio host Li Wei-ling, whose recent deployment to a less prominent radio slot earlier sparked worries over the station’s ability to uphold freedom of speech.
“Silencing my voice and sealing my pen; still I shine without compromise,” said Ng Chi-sum, who was removed as RTHK radio host in 2011, allegedly because of his critical stance of the government.
Eva Chan Sik-chee, a key campaigner against a curriculum for national education, also left her column blank.
The fourth columnist is Vivian Tam Wai-wan, a former Ming Pao reporter who is now active in a concern group on the newspaper’s future. Her writings are published under a pen name.
The leadership replacement at Ming Pao – decided by the controlling Malaysian company, the Media Chinese International (MCI) group – is said to follow Lau’s decision to run multiple headlines on the licensing of free-television broadcasting last year.
The empty columns came after a similar move by Martin Lee Chu-ming, founding chairman of the Democratic Party, a week ago.
Apart from the planned leadership change, the four were also protesting at Ming Pao’s Canadian edition having removed articles critical of the development published in the Hong Kong version.
Opponents of the editorial replacement argue that the expected newcomer – Chong Tien Siong, former editor of Malaysian paper Nanyang Siang Pau, also of the MCI group – lacks knowledge in local affairs to run Ming Pao effectively.